Into the Mix: The Changing Landscape of Mixed-Use Projects

A veteran architect and planner sheds light on the innovations and trends that are re-shaping the new generation of multifaceted properties.

JIm Baeck, Design 3 International
JIm Baeck, Design 3 International

At a time when mixed-use developments are becoming perhaps more popular and prevalent than ever, the standard mixed-use formula is evolving in a range of exciting new directions. The synergistic power of mixed-use destinations has taken mixed use from the exception to the rule: once a relatively rare sight, mixed-use concepts are now increasingly common on the development landscape.

Experience is still at the heart of the mixed-use value proposition, but new trends, tactics and techniques are redefining the contours of that experience.

Retail Trends

Anchors, a way

As more mixed-use projects feature both commodity retail and specialty town-center-style environments, one strategy we are beginning to see more often is the use of a department store or other large anchor tenant as a connecting element. Connecting big-box concepts (commodity and service retail) directly with specialty retail through an anchor allows each to “cross-pollinate” the other and capture business from consumers who would otherwise make separate shopping trips.

Selling points

Unique retail tenants have always been a key ingredient in mixed-use success. Bike shops along bike paths; incubator restaurants or satellite locations of larger on-site or nearby restaurants; and food carts on the town square or adjacent to a park space are all ways to add interest and retail diversity.

Along with new retailers come new and unique spaces, users and uses, many of them not driven by the profit motive. Community rooms and/or non-denominational religious spaces provide a central gathering space that can be reserved for weddings, yoga classes, community meetings or other special events. We are also seeing more “living rooms” and other comfortable public spaces for people to hang out, relax, or enjoy a cup of coffee with friends or family.

Going public

In recent years, a number of forward-thinking retailers and development and design professionals have begun to make better use of the open community spaces and green spaces found in so many mixed-use projects by extending the retail brand into the public realm. Outdoor brands like REI and Bass Pro Shops have held equipment seminars and exhibitions, sporting goods stores have taken advantage of adjacent outdoor public space to intermittently display products and hold public events (beach volleyball, cornhole tournaments, etc.), and yoga stores and athletic women’s fashion brands like lululemon have held outdoor yoga lessons and fitness classes.

Entertaining new ideas

Entertainment has long been a key component of mixed-use projects, but a recent explosion of new concepts has not only given entertainment a bigger slice of the mixed-use pie but made it a viable anchor in some projects. Instead of a conventional bar, we are now seeing working breweries. Bowling and golf retailers have taken a similarly ambitious approach to “upsizing” their offerings, with higher quality in-house food and beverage offerings. And cinemas have been among the most creative and aggressive in this area, with popular new concepts that offer luxury seating, upscale food offerings and full drink menus.

Department store futures

Developers and retailers are even working in concert to find creative new ways to make department stores more viable, engaging and interactive with adjacent town center spaces. One of the most intriguing possibilities is to transform what has traditionally been an introverted box into more of an exterior-facing entity, with some departments lining the street–and perhaps providing additional points of entry.

Eclectic innovation

Living it up

As important as residential is to the mixed-use equation, it isn’t surprising to see that new and intriguing residential concepts are taking shape in mixed-use projects. Some developers are including funky loft apartments (sometimes numbering only four to six units) above smaller retail buildings, typically along main commercial avenues or adjacent to park spaces. Townhomes “in the air” are also cropping up, with residential spaces laminated to the side, or placed on top, of parking structures. The goal is to provide a wider range of appealing lifestyle options and help densify and activate busy social and commercial centers.

Office spacing

Office space above ground-floor retail has long been a mixed-use staple. More often, however, architects and developers are integrating distinctive professional spaces that are visually appealing as well as functionally and even experientially unique. From renovated warehouses and historic buildings that retain their original charm, to funky lofts with high ceilings and larger floor plates, the range of options is eye-opening. Architectural features like atriums, communicating stairs and skylights add interest and offer a different kind of product than typical Class A office.

A last resort

A hotel can be an outstanding addition to a mixed-use project. We are seeing more developers working harder to include upscale hospitality components: hotels that offer an exclusive “resort” feel with amenities like pool decks, rooftop bars and other highlights. In some cases, hotel lobbies are spilling out onto bustling commercial avenues, and third-party restaurants and streetfront cafes also provide access from the hotel lobby in a way that makes it all feel like one large, interconnected space. These strategies amplify the social energy of both the hotel lobby and the adjacent street.

Art: working

Art has been featured in many successful mixed-use projects over the years. More recently, however, art has become less of an accent and more of an integral piece of the visual and experiential landscape. We are seeing things like parking garages with perforated metal skin that reveal subtle patterns and messaging; “bar codes” printed on the pavement that convey information, seasonal signage and changes in real time with weather and special events; and large video screens that display artwork and animation alongside messaging for shoppers and visitors.

In the battle for the hearts, minds and dollars of consumers, mixed-use has helped brick-and-mortar destinations resist the allure of convenient online and mobile shopping, and given people a reason to spend money and leisure time in environments with no shortage of things to do. The new ideas emerging in mixed-use promise to add to that growing list, fostering more creative, engaging and community-centric environments.

In the end, that might prove to be the most exciting thing about town centers and mixed-use developments: Great mixed-use is not a limiting format, it’s a blank slate–a canvas brought to life by colorful experiences and the energy of social, commercial and civic engagement. The original town center concept of the retail street grid, and even the design of the buildings themselves, is ultimately just a backdrop for the activities and experiences that define great public spaces.

Jim Baeck is a founding principal of Design 3 International, a Catonsville, Md.-based planning and design firm that provides services for a wide range of property categories.